Ken Burns is the director of The National Parks: America's Best Idea. The six-part series will air on PBS beginning September 27.
I don't know how cold it was that January morning in Yellowstone, but the night before the temperature had been minus 20. My crew and I had rattled out to Mud Volcano in a snow coach to film at first light. The shoot was quick—subzero conditions tend to focus the mind—and after we crammed back into the cab and thawed the icicles in our nostrils, the driver pointed our treads toward the Hayden Valley.
While the name might not ring a bell with non-geologists, Hayden is one of Yellowstone's most iconic features. It is named for Ferdinand Hayden, who headed up the first official survey of the region in 1871. In the summer the valley is bustling with visitors. But at that moment, in the midwinter cold, it was as empty and as breathtaking as it must have been some 130 years ago. The Yellowstone River was frozen solid and blanketed in snow. Hundreds of bison idled on the plain, some standing, some lying down. The only movement for miles was their breath steaming upward.
John Muir once stood before Glacier Bay, Alaska, and said, "This is still the morning of creation." While that was true of the Hayden Valley that winter morning, I prefer to think of Yellowstone, and by extension all national parks, a bit differently—not only as something this nation has preserved, but also something we've accomplished: one of America's best ideas.